by Fraser Watts
History and Philosophy of Psychology is an inherently interdisciplinary enterprise, and in this blog I want to tease some of the complex issues that arise about that.
Both the history of psychology, and the study of philosophical issues in psychology, are interdisciplinary endeavours in the obvious sense that they are the study of one discipline from the perspective of another. However, I will want to argue that, rather than pursuing the historical and philosophical study of psychology separately, there is much to be gained from bringing them into close relationship. That raises the interdisciplinarity involved to a higher order, so that it becomes the triangulation on psychology from the combined perspective of two other disciplines (and perhaps other humanities disciplines too). There are further issues that arise from history and philosophy of psychology being pursued both by psychologists and, in a slightly different way, by historians and philosophers, with the consequent need to bring those different approaches into dialogue.
There is a danger that when any discipline is pursued with single-minded enthusiasm it loses critical perspective. Once promising lines of enquiry can become cull de sacs that are followed with huge energy, but in a rather myopic way, that does not really lead anywhere, and which puzzles later generations. For example, the study of ‘learning theory’ was once seen as the centre-piece of scientific psychology, but in the twenty-first century it has sunk almost without trace. I would argue that disciplines are less likely to get into that kind of rut if they have the benefit of the broader perspective than multidisciplinarity (such as the history and philosophy of psychology) can provide.
As I have said, I also believe there is much to be gained from bringing the history and philosophy of psychology together. A narrow history of psychology that ignores intellectual history can become little more than an archival chronicle of what psychologists have done. That archiving is an indispensible resource for the history of psychology, but I would hope we could go further and look at how changing conceptualisations have shaped the development of psychology, and that brings the history of psychology into contact with philosophy.
Equally, the philosophical study of psychology cannot ignore how the conceptualisations that underpin psychology are historically and culturally contingent. There is no once-for-all philosophy of psychology that takes a ‘view from nowhere’ (in Thomas Nagel’s famous phrase). Ways of conceptualising human nature change, and conceptualisations of psychology itself are ever-shifting. Recognizing that leads the philosophical study of psychology to become historical too.
There are other disciplines that can be brought into the mix too. In medicine there has recently been the development of ‘medical humanities’, involving a range of disciplines that can be brought to bear in the study of medicine. According to Wikipedia, medical humanities is an interdisciplinary field of medicine which includes the humanities (literature, philosophy, ethics, history and religion), social science (anthropology, cultural studies, psychology, sociology, health geography) and the arts (literature, theatre, film, and visual arts) and their application to medical education and practice. There is much to be said for a comparable broadening of the history and philosophy of psychology to the study of psychology from the perspective of the humanities, broadly conceived. Though there may be good reasons for prioritising history and philosophy, other disciplines have a contribution to make too.
I turn now to the different approaches of the psychologist and non-psychologists (historians, philosophers and others). This is a matter of some practical importance in the UK, as HPP currently seems to be more lively among non-psychologists than psychologists; in that regard the situation is quite different from what it was a decade or two ago. If HPP is to thrive within psychology it needs to create structures that enable it to work in collaboration with comparable studies by non-psychologists. Otherwise, there just isn’t the necessary critical mass.
Apart from that, I suggest that there is a helpful complementarity between the contributions of psychologists and non-psychologists to HPP. It is basically the distinction between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, one that has proved helpful methodologically in a number of fields. Psychologists obviously bring to HPP a rich familiarity and intuitive sympathy that it is hard for non-psychologists to match. However, professional historians and philosophers often bring to HPP a wider set of research skills than psychologists, and are better equipped to put the study of psychology in a wider context.
Psychologists are often interested exclusively in study and practice with what has been explicitly labelled as ‘psychology’. However, there has been extensive engagement with what is, in effect, recognizable as psychology, even if it is not labelled as such. The development of something labelled as ‘psychology’ is perhaps the most interesting phenomenon for HPP to study, and it is something that has had far-reaching consequences. However, it is easier to recognize just how significant that development has been if the net is cast wider, and includes de-facto psychology, even when not so labelled. Non-psychologists seem to find it easier than psychologists to work with those broader horizons. However, my main point here is the fruitfulness in HPP of getting psychologists and non-psychologists to work more closely together, in a complementary way.